Bruce Rubidge and Karoo Fossils

Prof Bruce Rubidge, fossil expert

Professor Bruce Rubidge in his beloved Karoo.

One of Professor Bruce Rubidge’s very earliest memories is of collecting a wedge of concrete, vaguely shaped like a small fossil skull. In great excitement he leapt on his tricycle and pedaled at top speed to his grandfather Sidney Rubidge, to show him this fabulous discovery.

False fossil

The ‘fossil’ that Bruce Rubidge found as a child, with features chiselled by his grandfather Sidney.

“My grandfather took it, and praised me for making a great find. The next time I saw it, he had chiseled little eyes, nostrils and teeth into it.”

The little ‘faux fossil’ is still in the Rubidge fossil collection.

Karoo Basin Through Time

 Bruce Rubidge grew up on Wellwood Farm near Nieu-Bethesda with the finest Karoo fossil finders around him. Legends like James Kitching and Robert Broom often came to the farm to visit Bruce’s equally legendary grandfather, Sidney Rubidge.

Gorgonopsian, Rubidgea

The fearsome Rubidgea, a Permian predator.

The family now has several creatures named after it. Most of these roamed about during the Permian period more than 252 million years ago.

The most famous, Rubidgea, was a tiger-sized predator with alarmingly long canines, now mercifully extinct.

Bruce Rubidge went on to become head of the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontology at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), discovering and describing ancient therapsids as well as temnospondyl amphibians.

His research is currently to understand the environment of the earliest land-living reptiles from Gondwana, and the changes in biodiversity during the Middle and late Permian Periods. By combining palaeontological and geological information he and his students are researching how the Karoo Basin developed through time.

During 2013 the University of the Witwatersrand restructured its palaeo-science research institutes by combining them into a single Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI), and was also awarded an NRF Centre of Excellence. Rubidge is the director of both the ESI and the Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences.

Gorgonopsian

Even in fossilised death, the Gorgonopsian looks fearsome.

International Treasure

Professor Rubidge brushes aside any praise, making it seem that if he’d had any real talent, he’d be a farmer like his father Richard or brother Robert.

Driving a standard-issue white University bakkie from Nieu-Bethesda to the Lootsberg Pass, Rubidge points out to us the long level layers of sediment that characterise the hills of this dry heartland, left there by huge shifting rivers, carrying silt down from the Himalaya-like mountain ranges that stood north and south of the Karoo. Without the silt, there would have been no fossils preserved.

“This area of the Karoo is a paradise for palaeontologists. It’s an international treasure,” he says.

Nieu-Bethesda, Compassberg

Nieu-Bethesda, with Compassberg in the background.

Near the top of the pass we scramble up the crumbling mudstone and actually see the fossils of small Lystrosaurus curled up in their burrows.

Somewhere up here is a distinct line recognisable to palaeo-geologists marking the dramatic Permian extinction and the beginning of the Triassic. Below it are many fossils. Above it, almost none.

Stone fossil

Many of the fossils are therapsids, or proto-mammals.

Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre

 Professor Rubidge started the Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre in the heart of Nieu Bethesda in 2005 to expose the public to the excitement of the ancient Karoo and its immense fossil wealth.

The Karoo, says Rubidge, is “the only place in the world where a time-extensive fossil record of the early diversification of reptiles is preserved in a single basin, chronicling the most distant evolutionary ancestry of mammals in remarkable detail.”

Ross Foxton, a retired businessman, donated a house in Nieu-Bethesda to serve as the headquarters and display facility for the Centre.

Uncovering fossil

The painstaking process of separating stone from fossil.

Within the building you’ll see fossils as life-sized reconstructed dicynodonts, and the fearsome gorgonopsian Rubidgea against the backdrops of ancient Karoo environmental scenes. In the centre you will learn how human evolution and existence rests on a long and continuous line of unlikely-looking beasts that have sidestepped extinction no fewer than five times.

Guides trained by the ESI at the University of the Witwatersrand will show you how to extract fossils from the hard shale and take you out along the Gats River to see the stone bones in situ.

You’ll be walking a path trodden by many ancient and modern animals. This is where Kitching had some of his richest finds.

  •  To find out more about the Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre, call (011) 717-6685

or e-mail:  fossilsafari1@gmail.com or  Ian.Mckay@wits.ac.za.

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8 Responses to Bruce Rubidge and Karoo Fossils

  1. Munro Bloch April 26, 2014 at 2:24 am #

    Small correction required – you refer to the KT extinction boundary on the Lootsberg pass. This should read PT (Permian/Triassic)

    • Julienne du Toit April 26, 2014 at 10:53 am #

      Thank you!

  2. Annatjie Reynolds November 10, 2014 at 11:14 am #

    My grootste droom: om ‘n fossiel op ons plaas Nieuwefontein buite Richmond te vind. Sal ‘n groep kos gee en slaapplek bied, as hulle miskien hier kan kom soek? Ek wil die heel tyd saam in die veld wees.

    xxxAnnatjie Reynolds

  3. Helen Mudge March 9, 2015 at 2:58 pm #

    A correction in the 5th para 252 million years ago I guess? Not 252 years ago!!

    • Julienne du Toit March 9, 2015 at 3:24 pm #

      Whoops. Corrected, thank you!

  4. Hermi Baartman March 9, 2015 at 5:26 pm #

    As ek my lewe van voor af kon begin, was ek n fossieljagter, prof Rubidge se veld-assistend, prof James Kitching se hamertjie en sak vir hom gedra, en sou ek elke rots in die Karoo identfiseer, al die soogdieragtige reptiele se name kon uitryg

    • Julienne du Toit March 11, 2015 at 7:11 am #

      I love this comment, thank you Hermi! Ons ook. Ons hoor Prof Rubidge gaan een van die dae in Graaff-Reinet aftree. What a treasure of a man.

  5. Hermi Baartman December 4, 2015 at 6:47 am #

    Ek keer binnekort terug na Graaff-Reinet om die laaste paar tree van my lewenspad te loop. So bly, sirkel voltooi.

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